/**span.highlight**/Athletes succeeding on a shoestring/*/*

For seven years Annabel Anderson dominated stand-up paddle boarding, claiming multiple world titles, before a terrifying skiing accident forced her to take a break. The sport didn’t make her rich, but did take her on the adventure of her life.

In her previous sporting life, Anderson was an elite cyclist and mountain biker, a skier and a mountain runner.

In her previous sporting life, Anderson was an elite cyclist and mountain biker, a skier and a mountain runner.

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In 2018, Annabel Anderson was finally forced to slow down. Plunging more than 500 metres off a cliff will do that to you.

For most of the previous year, Anderson was unstoppable. She was the world’s number one stand up paddleboarder for the fifth consecutive year, and the only woman to hold the title.

Anderson was the World #1 paddle boarder since rankings started in 2012 until 2018.

Anderson was the World #1 paddle boarder since rankings started in 2012 until 2018.

She was the International Surfing Association Long Distance World Champion, Long Technical World Champion, the Pacific Paddle Games Long Distance Technical Champion and Overall Champion, Salt Life Cup Champion and SUP Magazine’s Female Athlete of the Year award winner.

Anderson dominated the Devil’s Isle Challenge - an almost 50km slog around Bermuda and one of the longest ocean SUP races in the world. In 25 knot winds, howling in the wrong direction, she won, beating Australian yachtsman Jimmy Spithill by almost 15 minutes. She’d entered the race at the last minute.

She first discovered SUP in 2008 on holiday in Musket Cove, Fiji.

She first discovered SUP in 2008 on holiday in Musket Cove, Fiji.

“It took me a year to make it to world number one. And I stayed there until the end of my career,” she says.

“You win one world title, and it's kind of a fluke. You win two world titles, and you prove the first one wasn't a fluke. You win three world titles, and it starts to become a little bit more legitimate. 

“The backing up and consistency of performance over time, it's quite possibly the hardest thing… the pressure that goes with the target on your back and this underlying level of anxiety to turn up and perform regardless.”

A dominant force on the water, she also put herself at the forefront of a movement for equality in the sport. She lit a fire on social media after female athletes were left out of the invite only Red Bull Heavy Water event in San Francisco.

The prize money - US$20,000 to the overall winner - was the largest ever offered in SUP racing history. The movement #ipaddleforequality swept the sporting community. 

Her hometown is Wānaka, but Anderson often spent ten months a year competing overseas.

Her hometown is Wānaka, but Anderson often spent ten months a year competing overseas.

As she arrived home to Wānaka, after 10 months overseas, Anderson was nominated a finalist in the Halberg awards.

She was burnt out after her “year of tear”. 

“I knew that that couldn't continue like that forever… I needed to go and rebuild the equilibrium.”

She decided to take 2018 off.

And then I hit my head. And then I crushed my thumb. And then I skied off a cliff.

Annabel Anderson

“I live in a place that most people would give their eye tooth for right now,” Anderson says.

“I live in a place that most people would give their eye tooth for right now,” Anderson says.

Anderson took the adrenaline junkie’s approach to rest. A hike-and-fly paragliding trip in early January 2018 was called off because of high winds. So, she returned to the mini-gym built in her parents’ garage. 

In the garage she had a hanging pull-up bar rigged to the ceiling, but it did not stay up. “The whole ceiling frame blew out and I fell back and cracked my head on concrete.”

It wasn’t her first concussion - and impacts of head trauma and whiplash can be cumulative over time. 

Six months later, she was working her way back to normal when she broke her thumb in a freak accident in a mountain bike race in the French Alps. “I had a tyre blowout. They happen. I  wasn't doing anything I shouldn't have been doing.

The hills and mountains surrounding Wānaka are her training, and playground.

The hills and mountains surrounding Wānaka are her training, and playground.

“But in paddling, your thumb's kind of quite important.”

There’s a silver lining to every dark cloud, Anderson says. She spent most of the winter skiing, splinted thumb in a padded glove.

She’d grown up on the Southern Alps slopes, and was competing on the international circuit as a teenager with dreams of becoming an Olympic skier. 

Anderson is no stranger to comebacks: her original athletic career was cut short when she broke her leg and then suffered a knee injury. 

“It was the last day in August, skiing the meadows out the back of Treble Cone… I took one turn too many at speed and I got cliffed.

I fell 550 metres to the valley, essentially the bottom of the Motatapu Chutes and when I came to ... I was already tractioned in a sled, and got choppered to Dunedin.

Annabel Anderson

“I pretty much blew myself out from the tip to the toe.” 

Her spine took multiple hits, and she broke her tailbone, the socket of her hip bone was broken by the force of her femur being driven into her pelvis. 

She fractured a shin, ruptured a knee ligament, blew out her shoulder and suffered whiplash and severe bruising. Worst of all was another injury to her head. “I just got mactrucked,” she says.

She spent four weeks on crutches and it was 11 weeks before she could walk without ‘hitching’ her hip. 

Within six weeks the full effects of her second head injury in a year began to manifest. But there was worse to come. 

“At the start of January [2019] I said yes to someone to go for a hike up Rob Roy Glacier when I was still very much learning how to walk again. 

“I had a cap on and I walked straight into a rock which overhangs on the side of the trail. It was the catalyst for quite a horrible next four or five months.”

Anderson says it was this injury that “took me down, big time”.

Unable to cope with noise, bright sunlight and people, she retreated. Even choosing which clothes to put on for a walk, crippled her with indecision. 

“The hard thing about head injuries is you can't see them. And they are so debilitating. I would just burst into tears. 

“It was so isolating… you can't be in loud places, it's very difficult to socially interact in a normal way and so I found myself just withdrawing.

I couldn't put myself in a cafe, restaurant or bar around loads of people, it would just be so overwhelming. I’d need to come home and have a sleep.

Annabel Anderson

She began working with a neuroscientist in Auckland, and took each day at a time. 

“I understood that these emotional reactions would just be my brain being overwhelmed and not able to cope.  And so, if there was anything that I was really good at doing, it was putting structure and routine into something.

“It comes as an athlete if you have done years of it.

“My whole approach to it was we just try again. If we fail today, tomorrow, we're just going to get up, reset, try again.”

Anderson running on Mt Iron, a rocky knoll that rises 250m above Wānaka.

Anderson running on Mt Iron, a rocky knoll that rises 250m above Wānaka.

By March, she was able to put weight through her shoulder and she tentatively returned to the yoga studio.

“I was like: I don't know if I'm going to get through this class…and I literally have rebuilt my body in a yoga studio.

“It’s put me back together...that whole thing of the discipline of just turning up regardless of what the outcome is, just committing to the process and my body moves better than ever. My brain functions better than ever.”

As she healed, her sponsors - including an airline and car manufacturer - began to fall away. She wrangled with Drug Free Sport over a missed doping test - finally accepted as a misunderstanding. 

After two years, Anderson is yet to return to racing. The international season fires up in May and June, but the coronavirus pandemic has turned the sporting world upside down.

She’s 39, but refuses to rule out a return to the competition she dominated for nearly a decade.

“I don't feel like I've got anything to prove...but never really say never.

Anderson competes in the 2012 Battle of the Paddle, in California.

Anderson competes in the 2012 Battle of the Paddle, in California.

“It would probably be easier if I just said: ‘Hey, I'm retired.’ But I never retire from anything. I hate the word retirement.”

SUP would be the third sporting career she’s been forced to bow out of.

As a teenager she competed on the Fédération Internationale de Ski circuit, the alpine sport’s top level tour. By 1999, aged 16, she was well on the way to becoming an Olympic athlete.

But she overtrained, breaking her left leg in the run up to the first race of the season. As she recovered, she tore a ligament in her right knee and developed glandular fever. 

She had to rethink her plans, enrolling in a commerce and marketing degree at Otago University. Swimming proved useful rehab for her knee, and she bought a bike. Soon she was competing in triathlons: finishing in the Oceania Triathlon Championships top 10, and winning a spot in the High Performance Program.

The Olympics was in sight again: until she re-ruptured the torn knee ligament training for the World Triathlon Championships. Painkillers and bad advice from a coach pushed her through, but she did further damage to the fragile joint.

The adrenaline addict took the winter off and returned to the mountains - this time competing in free skiing and rupturing the ACL ligament for the fourth time. 

As she turned 24, Anderson had endured 11 surgeries on her knees and turned her back on pain - and competition.

Anderson settled into corporate life in Auckland, sailing in the harbour in her spare time. She tried stand up paddle boarding  for the first time on a Fiji holiday in 2008.

And then worldwide economic disaster upset her plans. “So the GFC hits in 2009. I made it through four rounds of redundancy with American Express before I got the ‘Dear John’ letter.

“I came back here to Wānaka and I cleaned vacation rentals and went up the hill pretty much every day. That was almost like a recalibration [after] going through a lot of really stressful corporate burnout and  being on eggshells...I found that really therapeutic.

Anderson pottering in the garden she shares with her parents.

Anderson pottering in the garden she shares with her parents.

“But once the end of winter came, I was looking at what to do next. I was interviewing for jobs. It dawned on me that if I accepted any of these roles, it was going to be the white picket fence and I could see my future playing out in front of me. And that scared me more than going and having an adventure and throwing myself in the deep end.”

Aged 28, she sold her belongings, got a two year work visa and bought a one-way ticket to London. 

“I arrived in the depth of a double recession… I was doing temp jobs… earning seven pounds-something on the highest tax bracket.

“It cost £6.80 for a tube ticket. So, I had to donate my first hour of the day working just to get to and from work.”

To save cash she began running and biking to and from work on the city’s canal towpaths.

I wondered if I could get a board in London and utilise the river. It took me 10 months to scrimp and save enough pennies to be able to get a board.

Annabel Anderson

“And that's how I started finding some serenity in the concrete jungle, that was the start of being able to paddle.”

Within a month, she’d talked her way into the Jever World Cup in Hamburg, Germany.

Anderson began competing in Europe after moving to London, aged 28.

Anderson began competing in Europe after moving to London, aged 28.

“Little old Annabel rocks up with no experience, never been on a race board before. But I'm fit, I know how to race and I've got two days to figure it out.

“That weekend I walked away with second [place] and €2000 in my back pocket.”

That event was the start of what Anderson calls her “amazing race”.

“I'd never been out of London. So it was this excuse to go and explore some other bits of Europe.”

She signed up for La Traversee de Paris, a race down the Seine in the depths of the northern hemisphere winter.

“If Hamburg was a fluke, Paris was solidification that I had arrived,” Anderson recalls. “It set in place a motion of events, of invitations to places. All of a sudden, I had a brand of equipment [Starboard] that wanted to support me.”

She consistently beat both male and female competitors.

She consistently beat both male and female competitors.

Prize money took her from event to event, across Europe and then later the world. “The lure of the adventure drew me in.  Everything that I could do outside of competition grabbed me. If turning up and competing and racing was the job, the adventures were the weekends.”

There were more injuries along the way. She developed a staph infection in her leg that put her in a French hospital for a fortnight. She broke her toes in Italy - but didn’t stop her racing a few days later. In mid 2012, she fell down some stairs tearing the medial collateral ligament on the inside of her right knee. And then she broke her ribs in 2.4 metre surf at a race in Florida.

After a series of injuries ruled out a ski-ing career, Anderson began competing in triathlons.

After a series of injuries ruled out a ski-ing career, Anderson began competing in triathlons.

“Once you start getting attention, you get everything that goes with that. You’re in the media more, there's more invitations extended to you, more commercialisation opportunities. 

“If you've just taken all that attention away from the incumbents… girls aren't typically very good at dealing with it. Was I quite protective of my space? I think in some ways, yes. Because I had to fight so hard for the scraps that I got.

“It's not the nicest place to be. It was so isolating, horrifically lonely.

Anderson has suffered her share of bruises and broken bones, but found lingering concussion debilitating.

Anderson has suffered her share of bruises and broken bones, but found lingering concussion debilitating.

“There were periods where I hated it. It was like: who's going to throw the next hit? And so you always had this underlying level of anxiety that would just never leave.”

Little support was forthcoming from her home country. SUP is not recognised as a high-performance sport, and Anderson was a “one girl band” organising her own career, travel and training. 

“I hustled like hell. Managing media sponsorships, logistics, designing all my own gear, doing all the testing, writing my own training [programme], coaching others. Everything. 

“It was intense.”

Within New Zealand, there wasn’t much in the way of celebration of her success and her achievements were only occasionally recognised in local media. 

She wasn’t even notified that she was a Halberg nominee.

In New Zealand I definitely feel that if you haven't done what is within the box of Sport New Zealand, cricket, rugby, netball, and hockey...well, we could do a better job of recognising there are many different ways that people achieve.

Annabel Anderson

“When the event happened, I didn't even know it was happening. Chris Dixon, the sailor, sent me a text message with a photo. ‘Oh, congratulations. Are you here?’ I was like: ‘No’.

“But hey, if you did it for the invites, you might be in it for the wrong reasons.  If you're doing it for the recognition, you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons.”

By 2017, Anderson was burnt out. And her success did not bring great wealth.

“The men were always being paid more. Everything was male centric.

I worked out that I got the equivalent of what a guy that was ranked between top 20 and top 30 in the world received.

Annabel Anderson

“I know people that have done incredibly well out of it, boys that went through the same trajectory as me, but I know that everyone's path is different. 

“I don't feel aggrieved in any way,  I just made it work. And money was never the driver, the thrill of the chase, the sense of adventure, and the people were the overriding things that I got from it.

“I worried but I didn't worry. Because I was never extravagant and actually I didn’t need much.”

“While I might not look as though I've got all the most material things in the world,” Anderson says. “I probably don't value materialistic objects to the same extent.”

“While I might not look as though I've got all the most material things in the world,” Anderson says. “I probably don't value materialistic objects to the same extent.”

Covid-19 means she doesn’t have to make any immediate decisions about returning to competition. For now, she’s happy coaching online and paddling on Lake Wānaka.

“I always have this approach of maintaining a level of baseline fitness that allows me to ramp back up should I want to, or should an opportunity present itself that something lights my fire. 

“As long as I'm fit, able and there is a drive within, then why would you write yourself off?”

Back in Wānaka, Anderson is living with her parents, Robert and Janet. She rents out her own home, and manages holiday lets.

Anderson is now in demand as an online coach.

Anderson is now in demand as an online coach.

“I'm rich and plentiful in the things that really matter. And so, yes, do I clean houses?  Do I look after a bunch of vacation rentals? Yes.  That comes back to making things work.

“I'm not too proud to roll up my sleeves and do what needs to be done. 

“Everyone sees success in different ways. So, while I might not look as though I've got all the most material things in the world, I probably don't value materialistic objects to the same extent. 

“I'm healthy. I live in a place that most people would give their eye tooth for right now, I have everything on my doorstep.”

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Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: Ed Scragg